There is one member of the lunatic fringe who, whenever I review a particular ensemble, sends abusive, incoherent and frequently libellous emails. I gather this ranting member of the illiteracy also sends abusive emails to my colleagues whenever they review the same ensemble. The strange thing is, this idiot hurls abuse not because we are in any way critical of the performances, but because we praise them. Whenever I say a nice thing about them, I am told I do not know anything, am a deaf imbecile and, because my name is not Chinese, belong to a sub-species of humanity whose race and ethnicity by default render me incapable of serious musical judgement. I am told to “Go Home” and not “Impose my ignorance on Singaporeans”, to “Jump under a moving train” and to undertake all manner of sexual activities with all manner of inanimate objects.
Far from being offended, however, I am thrilled when reviews and criticism prompt a reaction, hostile or otherwise. It is good to know that, even among the loonies of this world, music matters sufficiently to warrant the effort taken to hurl racist, libellous and vicious abuse at those who comment on it. How sad the world would be if nobody cared, and allowed critics to say whatever they like without risk of censure. I could, personally, live without the extreme racist abuse, but otherwise I urge my dopey detractor to keep it up; I wish more people would respond, although a measured response with considered opinions is always preferable to the contradictory ramblings of the seemingly mentally unstable.
Responding to critics is, however, a surprisingly rare activity; and I cannot recall anyone previously berating me for being complimentary to a performer. We critics put ourselves in the front line by voicing personal opinions in public, and while we try to justify them, we do not hope (nor wish) to force others to adopt our stance. Our aim is to get the conversation going; if you talk about something, then it begins to interest and concern you in a more positive way than if you just let it pass over tour head. Sadly, it seems to me, the level of conversation when it comes to music is limited to the abusive one-worders of anonymous YouTube and Twitter subscribers; the considered thoughts of a professional critic seem, if anything, to intimidate readers into silence. So long live my Singaporean abuser; at least there is one person who seems to care, even if they have yet to identify in themselves quite what it is they care about.
I have, like all my colleagues, had plenty of interesting feedback over the years, some of it abusive but as often as not stimulating and genuinely thought-provoking, and I have entered into protracted correspondence with some, leading to a deep re-evaluation of opinions on both sides of the correspondence. But I’ve also had a good crop of really silly ones.
There was the famous organist who, after having released somewhere in the region of 12 CDs in as many months featuring as many composers and musical styles, objected to this comment I made: “With such a heavy recording schedule and such an extensive repertory, you would have thought XXXX might by now be in danger of treating the recording process as something routine”. I did go on to say that this was a danger said organist had, against all the odds, managed to avoid. Unfortunately, the first sentence so enraged him that, before reading on, he fired off a letter to me in which he said that, when he read my words, he seriously contemplated suicide. That, to me, was an outrageous and unacceptable thing to write; but I’m afraid my response was equally outrageous and unacceptable; “It’s good to know my words could have had one positive outcome for the world of music”.
Then there was the well-known composer and arranger who, having read my review of his latest publication in which I suggested it was all written to a formula with no originality, wrote the following to my editor: “I do not know who this Marc Rochester is and have never heard of him before. So why do you continue to allow him to write in your magazine? I have been reading his reviews for the past few years and feel he is incapable of telling good music from bad”. My kind editor wrote back (copying to me); “You seem to know a lot about someone of whom you claim never to have heard, and I can assure you, and as his last review so eloquently proves, Marc Rochester is unusually adept at telling good music from bad”.
I prompted a flurry of letters with one of my early reviews for the Western Mail when I was sent to Swansea to review a performance by the jazz drummer Buddy Rich. Complaining that the sound system gave so much prominence to Rich that it was impossible to recognise the musical context of what he was playing, I got streams of complaints from Buddy Rich fans (not all of whom appeared to have been at the concert) about “not knowing what I was talking about” and about “not understanding what Buddy was trying to do”. I also got a charming note from Buddy Rich himself to the effect that I showed really understanding of what it was he had been trying to do and complaining about the sound engineers who seemed to be working to their own agenda.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to critics is to find their words recycled in promoting good artists. When a comment I had made in the pages of the International Record Review (of fond and sad memory) about a young singer’s début album appeared on a sticker for her subsequent release, I don’t know who was more excited, me or my editor who felt it had given credibility to a magazine which always had to struggle to get its voice heard.
Of course, there is always the issue of your own words being sent back to haunt you. A damning piece of criticism I wrote about an opera production I saw in Cardiff many years ago included the sentence “Only if the alternative would be to watch paint dry over three hours, this production of La Boheme would be, marginally, the most stimulating”. When I was in Birmingham some months later I walked past a theatre only to see a poster for the same production there in which my name appeared beside the promotional quote “most stimulating”.